Having just reached a population of 8 million this summer, Switzerland seems minuscule compared to China and its roughly 1.35 billion residents. Nor can Switzerland’s economic and political power be compared to the upcoming superpower that is China. However, with Swiss founders and co-organizers, Switzerland was featured quite prominently at the World Resources Forum 2012 in Beijing. But why should China and other countries around the world be interested in Switzerland when it comes to resources? And how can Switzerland benefit from these Sino-Swiss relations?
On one hand, Switzerland was presented at the forum as one of the rich industrialized countries using many resources. As Dr. Xaver Edelmann, President of the World Resources Forum, explained in the opening session: if everyone were to use as many resources as the average Swiss person, we would need the supplies of two and a half earths in the near future. Currently, we are consuming at the rate of one and a half earths. This is still lower than in other industrialized western countries, yet still higher than in China or in other parts of Asia, and definitely not sustainable.
On the other hand, Switzerland was also presented as a country of innovation and as one of the front-runners when it comes to environmental policy implementation. Bruno Oberle, vice-president of the World Resources Forum Association and Director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), emphasizes that Switzerland has already made significant achievements on a political level in the past few years. Switzerland has, for example, set taxes on CO2-emissions aiming at reducing the output of greenhouse gases. As a reaction to Rio+20, the Swiss government has also adopted an action plan for a green economy in order to raise resource efficiency while strengthening the economy.
These are important steps. However, further action is still needed. According to Mr Oberle, resource efficiency should be the guiding principle in politics and in the economy in the future. Objectives of the FOEN are natural resource prices that reflect their true value and more transparent markets that reveal the use of resources for products. The entire life cycle of a product or service, from mining and extraction to production, transport, distribution, consumption and disposal should be disclosed to enable consumers to behave more resource efficient and environmentally conscious. Finally, Switzerland wants to become a leader in the cleantech sector and thus create more “green” jobs.
Mr Oberle’s account shows that ideas and a basic political will to advance resource and environmental policy exist. Many stakeholders are involved, however, and the Swiss decision making process isn’t necessarily the fastest or the easiest. On the consumer side, the Swiss must be willing to make sacrifices and make changes to their comfortable, consumption-oriented lifestyles. Also, greening the economy is a dynamic process. Policy might have to lead the way, by setting conditions in order for the economy to become active, but it is not the end-game solution. As pointed out by Mr Oberle, the economy will only become greener if organizations and businesses move into the same direction and see the transformation to a green economy as an opportunity.
Some opportunities might, for example, wait in China. China can profit in its policy and technological development from experiences made in Switzerland – from Swiss achievements, but also from its shortcomings and mistakes. In turn, China is an attractive market for Swiss companies that offer innovative and sustainable environmental technology. And Swiss have been quick to act upon that.
Switzerland and China have already been working closely together for several years in the fields of environmental protection, sustainable water management and the prevention of natural hazards. The two countries have signed two Memorandums of Understanding, which promote dialogue on policy and facilitate an exchange of know-how and information on both legislation and technologies in those fields. China has benefited from Swiss experiences in integral risk management of natural disasters like avalanches, landslides, mudslides and floods, which have become more frequent with climate change, in managing the same for its own mountainous regions.
The Chinese government has also shown specific interest in Switzerland’s climate policy. In the summer of 2011, a Chinese delegation came to Switzerland to gain information about political instruments for reducing air pollution. Engaged in the formulation of a draft law on the climate, the Chinese representatives were interested in how Switzerland develops legislation, how the cooperation between Parliament, institutions, science and industry works and how policies are being implemented.
This extensive sharing of knowledge and experience is very valuable and should be further extended to the issues of resource utilization. Of course, these close relations between Switzerland and China aren’t confined to environmental policy. Furthermore, they are a mean to enable and secure important trade relations between the two countries. They offer new business opportunities for Swiss companies promoting a green economy. Cleantech Switzerland, an export platform for Swiss Cleantech businesses, is for example active as intermediary on behalf of Swiss environmental businesses and has signed a cooperation agreement with the Chinese Environmental Protection Bureau with some initial success. Several Swiss businesses have also begun establishing themselves in China in consulting in the fields of spatial and environmental planning or in the solar thermal energy sector.
In this time of financial crisis and tax disputes, when having a Swiss bank account can already be a liability for an US presidential candidate, it is important for Switzerland and its businesses to reposition themselves beyond its common clichés of chocolate, cheese, watches and banks. Being a trailblazer in establishing a green economy could be an attractive alternative for both the Swiss government and Swiss businesses. However, while Switzerland might be able to establish itself as an initiator and a catalyst, whether or not resource scarcity and environmental change can be tackled, will be decided in emerging countries like China.